The Autobiography of Lerol Jones
By Amiri Baraka
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 1997 Imamu Amiri Baraka
All rights reserved.
Growing up was a maze of light and darkness to me. I never fully understood the purpose of childhood. Baby pictures nonplussed me. It looks like me a little, I thought. But what the hell, I didn't know nuthin'. It ain't that cute. Falling back like that, toothless grimace, mouth bare, legs bent, fat with diapers. And them probably wet.
Growing has obsessed me, maybe because I reached a certain point and stopped. My feeling is that I was always short. Maybe that's why people like those baby pictures, because you couldn't tell I was short then. Later, it became obvious and people started to rub it in.
I was not only short, little, a runt. But skinny too. Short and skinny. But as a laughing contrast I got these big bulbous eyes. Big eyes. And it was no secret where they came from: my old man. Actually, you could say I got my whole "built" from him (Coyette Leroy Jones). But I don't want to slander him, because he is my father and I love him.
But people always would be sliding up to me saying, "You look just like your father," or to him, "Roy, he look just like you," or to my mother or some other hopeless "responsible" in whose charge I was placed, "Hey, he look just like Roy" — "He look just like his father." It made you wonder (even then) why they put so much insistence on this. Was this a miracle? Wasn't I spose' to look like him? What was this wonder at creation? (Later, I would make up other implications of this charge.)
And today people take my second son, Ras, through the same bizness. And to a lesser extent his three brothers and sister. But this was a stamp or some stamps of Young: that I was short and skinny with big eyes and looked just like my father. These were the most indelible. My earliest identity.
I knew, too, rather early, that I was brown. Brown with a round face and sometimes wavy hair. These were later dissociations. Brown, round, and wavy. OK.
I thought I looked OK. Sometimes better than other times. When I had on what I wanted and wasn't too sparkly from my brown mom's Vaseline aspirations, I didn't look bad. Shit, I was just short! That's all. (Even the "skinny" shit was a secondary harassment.)
Another thing is that we were always in motion. It seemed that way. But why or how or even the supposed chaos of such a situation never registered. It certainly was never explained to me by anyone. Though I guess you could get some word from these Johnny-come-lately sociologists, if you got the time to be bored with their chauvinism. But it was our way, is what etched itself somewhere.
From Barclay Street, a "luxury" project we had to move out of, $24 a month was too much even though my ol' man had just got a good job at the Post Office. But he couldn't cut those prices, so we had to space. But I have some early memories of that place. Its park, its fire escapes (I nearly fell off and ended the saga right here), its red bricks and some light browns and yellows flittin' round.
Earlier than this is a blank, though I have "memories" produced by later conversations. Like being hit by a car — banged in the head (or do I remember the steel grille smacking my face, trying to wake me up!?).
A dude hit me in the head with a big rock. And I still carry the scar. I think I remember that sharp pain. A cold blue day. A brown corduroy jacket. And the whiz of wind as I broke round the corner to our crib.
I pulled a big brown radio down, also on my head. (Ah, these multiple head injuries — is something beginning to occur to you? Spit it out!) Another scar, still there. The radio had a knob missing and the metal rod sunk into my skull just left of my eye.
Tolchinskie's Pickle Works across the street. A smell and taste so wonderful I been hooked ever since (every sense). Hey, man, in a wooden barrel, with them big green pimples on 'em. And good shit floatin' around in the barrel with 'em.
A guy who flashed around and tried to teach us to play tennis. That's how "horizontal" our community was then. Almost all of us right there, flattened out by the big NO. Later, more would "escape," rise up a trifle by our collective push. PUSHy niggers. That's later a verticality rises, so we know. The vicissitudes of NO.
But I never learned how to play tennis. That yellowness never got in. But it was different in my house than out in the street. Different conventions. Like gatherings — of folks and their histories. Different accumulations of life. So those references and their enforcement.
You see, I come from brown niggers from way back. Yeh. But some yellow niggers — let's say color notwithstanding — some yellow and even some factual, afactual, white motherfucker or fatherfucker in there.
I was secure in most ways. My father and mother I knew and related to every which way I can remember. They were the definers of my world. My guides. My standards. (So any "nut-outs" y'all claim got to begin there!)
I was a little brown boy on my mother's hand. A little brown big-eyed boy with my father. With a blue watch cap with Nordic design. At the World's Fair (1939) eyes stretched trying to soak up the days and their lessons.
But the motion was constant. And that is a standard as well. From Barclay to Boston (Street) and the halfdark of my grandmother's oil lamp across the street. They had me stretched out one night, buddeeee, and this redfreckle-face nigger was pickin' glass outta my knee. There were shadows everywhere. And mystery.
My grandfather had had a grocery store on that same street earlier, but that was washed away in the '30s with a bunch of other stuff. My grandfather didn't shoot himself, or jump off a building. But after that, we was brown for sure!
And so for that branch of the family, there was a steep descent. My mother's folks, the Russes. In Alabama the old man owned two grocery stores and a funeral parlor. First grocery stores burned down by "jealous crackers" (my grandmother's explanation). After the second arson, they had to hat. First, to Pennsylvania (Beaver Falls) and then finally to Newark.
My father was running from dee white folkz too. He had bopped some dude side the head in a movie he ushered in. The dude was an ofay. (Naturlich!) And so, again, the hat was called for.
To arrive, out of breath, in a place you thought was The Apple but turned out to be the prune (Newark) or the raisin. Jobless, detached from the yellow streak of the Jones's (nee Johns's) upward mobility, even there inside the brown. A part-time barber, for mostly white folks, with a high school diploma — though three of his sisters were bound for college. Projected from a teeny brown white-haired widow lady, daughter of another teeny brown white-haired widow lady, who shot the distaffs through on sewing for white folks and a blissful irony that smiled the bittersweet recognition of the place and its inhabitants. Its mores and morons.
So that's where we was coming from. The church of specific reality. Inside the general (flight) our Johns-Jones/Russ lives merging. But see, they had sent my mother to Tuskegee (when it was a high school) and then to Fisk. I used to look at both yearbooks full of brown and yellow folks. She had one flick poised at the starting line, butt up, large eyes catching the whole world, about to take off. Her name then was "Woco-Pep," a Southern gasoline. She was that fast.
Where she was going to in her parents' heads, I ain't exactly hip. Except it's safe to say it was up. Storekeeper father, mother and brother assistants in the joint, and whatnot. But somehow she ran into this big-eyed skinny dude. (MF) My father. A tipsy part-time barber or a barber who occasionally got deep in his cups. The story goes he flipped his little Ford on top of his drunk self on 13th Avenue and come out from under swearing off.
You see an irony here? No? A split-off from the upwardly mobile somehow molests (with permission) the scioness of the nigger rich. Except by 1929 all them fireworks was put out by Ugly Sissy's fatal flaw — capitalismus. And so the new day dawned with a pregnant coed who did not get to go to the Olympics and a new member of the family who didn't come from "bad stock" (!aagh hopeless!) but what the hell was his thoroughly brown ass going to do now?
Marrying your mama, Jim. What else? And so flow the streams together. (But wasn't one of the first Negroes to read in South Carolina, complete with plaque and multiple modest legend, your old man's Uncle Enoch? Yaas — that's affirmative — over. And them slender and fat sisters of his, wasn't they all got to be teachers and shit? Affirmative — J.A.M.F. So couldink you say they was all in the same shit — anyway?)
You see, you doesink understand colored people or color peepas either. My mother's folks was in business. Them funeral parlor dudes was and is the actual colored rich guys. The bourgeoisie, dig? Them teachers and shit (his old man [MF's] was a preacher part-time and chef, also bricklayed a taste. Got the flu and it took him off), they just the petty bourgeoisie. And hell, they even had food smells and brick dust on 'em and some sew-for-white-ladies thread on 'em. Whew!
Later, it really cracked up. They was drug down! That's what the scuttlebutt was. Arguments in our weird orange house years later. My uncle called my father a "nincompoop." What is that? Because these Russes had been drug down, Jim! Outta they funeral parlors, outta they stores, Granddaddy to be a night watchman, his wife on the bus to Essex Fells to curl up some white ladies' hairs, and wouldn't ya know it, MF "had" MM in a dusty-ass Jew factory doing piecework. (But he did make a breakthrough, you got to admit. He wasn't jes' a dum' nigger. He did get in the Post Office!) Thass rumblings all up in there as part of the collective psyche. On the X spot of the altar. The forebodings and nigger history. All stuffed into me gourd unrapped on arrival. But ye gets used to hearing tumblings in the wind and words the leaves make spinning in the air like that.
But would ya tell from me mischievous ways the stuffings inside me round peapicker knot? A trained eye, ye say? Oh?
So, Boston Street. And "Bunny" and "Princess" across the street. His mother tortured him in the bathtub with green water. I couldn't help him — he was weeping and shit. I was froze and puzzled, standing there. What was in that water? Or was it just he didn't want no bath?
Ellie the painter raved in them parts. Crawling over the fences in spotted coveralls, drunk as the social system. We lived in two houses on that street — at one address I tumbled off the stone porch and busted my collarbone. And a preacher blew his wife to smithereens around the corner. It was a spooky house with a narrow path. And Miss Rhapsody across the street gettin' ready for evening so she could put on her purple flower and go out and sing the blues. (She had a fine-ass daughter. Blue, stiff, and beautiful!)
But all that soon was in the wind. We moved, ya see? Looked up and we were way cross town near the Italian border. I was born in the center of the city (New Ark) in a hospital named for a yellow doctor, Kinney Memorial. But by age five or six we'd spaced — dot-dot-dash-dot, communications — going somewhere. Wound up on a little street the other side of nowhere.
And we were all in there. Mama Daddy Nana Granddaddy Uncle Elaine and me. On Dey Street. The niggers were so cynical they called it die — the white folks so full of shit they called it day. Take your pick!
Orange house with a porch you sit on, or crawl under and plot shit. Living room, dining room, kitchen, left turn, bathroom. Back door and little yard, edged by cement and a two-car garage. Second floor: narrow bedroom (Uncle), middle bedroom with big oak bed with a back tall as a man and footpost taller than a six-year-old (Nana and Granddaddy). Front bedroom (Mama and Daddy and little kids, us).
A red-nosed Irishman (Ol' Man Doyle) and his wife on one side next to a vacant lot and right next door Angel Domenica Cordasca (female), a little nonromantic Italian playmate. Next to Doyle, the playground at the edge of which sat Central Avenue School. Next to Angel, a factory. Across the street from Central Avenue School, a row of brown houses. Clarence P. (funny), his older brother (weird), his mother (church stalker). Danny W., a confederate, short and curly-haired. Fast but plump. Another lot for an auto parts store. (They got the whole block now.) Then Pooky, a little Italian troublemaker, his twin sisters, snotty-nosed midgets. The Davises next, eight black curly-headed all-sized colored kids — actually light brown in color, black in socio-eco terms. Who knew Mr. D.? Mrs. D. was always called Ms. as far as I know. And she ran that bunch, literally, up and down the street. Frank, big and away soon to the army, never to return. Evelyn, big and fine with that wavy, straightish hair them kinda folks had, but way outta my generation. Sam called Lon-nell. It was Lionel. Orlando called "Board," meaning Bud. Algernon called "Algy." Jerome, real name "Fat." "Rookie," given name unknown, and Will, the pee wee. The D's always seemed like more than they were. At least ten or twelve. They were a standard of measure around those parts. Their name called by my mother meant "many" or "dirty" or "wild" or something like that. Algy and Board were running buddies of ours. Board was a desperado. And my mother didn't dig us running together. Nutty as he was, I didn't dig it too much. Algy was wild too, but cooler. Lon-nell you liked to have on your team as one of the "big boys."
Next to the Davises, Dominick, an Italian iceman, and his brood. Some more Italians, a couple, next to him, with a red and white very clean house. Dominick's house was yellow and brown. The red and white house had cherries in the back of it and you know we hit on them whenever our ass stopped aching from the last hit reported to the mama authorities. But those cherries, and I think some hard green knot peaches, like that cause we never let 'em stay there long enough to ripen, were cause for much adventure and repeated instruction in cause and effect.
There was also contrast in that and all along this one-block center (Central Avenue to Sussex Avenue) there was a similar contrast from a similar dissimilarity — mixture. For now we'd (Jones/Russ) flashed into a mixed neighborhood. I was about six now. And already a veteran of three different abodes. This made the fourth. (Barclay Street, two on Boston Street, and now Dey.) But all those other places had been the Central Ward — or at that time the Third Ward — near round "The Hill," center of black life. But this last move took us into the West (literally the West Ward) and a place where the black community trailed off in a sputter of Italians. Or likewise where the Italian community thinned and more and more blacks had moved in. So that in our block and all around in that area, there was a kind of standoff. Central Avenue School, it seems to me, was heavier black. The life there more controlled in the playground, in the hallways, by the black students. And the year the Warren Street contingent came in it was "The Hill" for sure pouring in. So that even in that part of the West headed North, the ambassadors from Central and even South brought those places to us. And so the Black Belt South — and so Africa.
But that mixture carried contradictions in it far beyond we youth, hey — even beyond many of the grown folks. We were friends and enemies in the non-final cauldron of growing up. We said things — did things — were things — and even became some other things that maybe could be understood on those streets, ca. 1940s.
So next to the red and white clean cherry and peach house, a lot with brown-grey gravel. A useless rusty lot that ended with a brick wall to nowhere. The back of some factory. And like a miniature boundary line, that twenty feet of lot separated the lower-middle-class Italian Cleaney from Eddie Clay's brown and tan rundown clapboard shack.
And in that shack, like a ghost of the black South — a drunken building — it had some living ghosts, poverty struck and mad. Old toothless snuff-chumping ladies. Staring old men. People with hard rusty hands. A woman named Miss Ada (I always thought it was ATOR, a weird radio drama monster name) who wandered and staggered and stared and got outrageous drunk and cursed out history.
We made up stories about Eddie and teased Eddie. A veil hung over the house. A food like musk — an oldness strangeness. Yet Eddie was one of The Secret Seven (the kids who hung with us sometimes, my sister and I, Board, Algy, Norman, Danny, Eddie). We were The Secret Seven, which met under our porch at 19 Dey Street to plot the destruction of packs of Kits and jars of Kool-Aid. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Autobiography of Lerol Jones by Amiri Baraka. Copyright © 1997 Imamu Amiri Baraka. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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